November 18, 2007

Crunch! The Musical

"Wear your fucking helmet" is Dianna's public service campaign, not mine, and so I'm not going to bogart it (as I believe the vernacular would have it). But I will offer a tidbit from circa an hour and a half ago.

Seems like most of the time bicyclists get killed in direct car-on-bike accidents. There's a lot of talk on community cycling and bike safety forums about the problem of right-hand turns: a driver turning right around a corner is often looking left to see if there's oncoming traffic or if he's clear to round the corner. Bicyclists turning right -- or riding through some intersections, depending on on the traffic design -- are usually poised on the right-hand side of the car, just behind the driver's field of vision. A lot of accidents happen because the driver either wasn't looking for or couldn't see a bike on his right, and when the driver turns, crunch!, he runs over the cyclist.

The most frequent and common-sense piece of advice I see about this is for savvy cyclists to take this into account when making right turns, and to figure out what each intersection calls for safety-wise: either to pull out enough that the waiting driver has to know you're there and get a wave or some kind of acknowledgement; to hang back enough until the driver makes his turn that he can't possibly clip you; to move left into the lane of traffic and take a whole car's space for yourself, or to avoid the corner altogether. For this reason, at some of the crappily laned or really busy intersections around here, I often cut the right corner by riding through a gas station or parking lot or whatever if it looks safer to do so than to deal with cars swerving into and through and around a right-turn lane. That way, when I enter the bike lane on the street I want, I'm far enough from the corner that the cars and I have separate lanes or zones again, and I can pause and make sure no car's turning too tight and ending up in my bike lane. I'm generally pretty worried about the right-turning drivers, and on streets with decent bike lanes, I'm not generally too concerned about the drivers continuing straight because we each have our own space.

There's a defensive-cycling logic that says that as long as you're smart about the dangers and vehicles around you, you know where everyone else is going and what you're doing, then you're probably fine. This also seems to equal, in some of my friends, an attitude that says, "Yeah, I know, cars are dangerous, but I'm a savvy and attentive cyclist, so I don't really wear a helmet and I'm good at getting out of the way fast."

Here's the accident that just happened:

I was riding my bike down a side street toward the busy street that I live on. I was going to make a right-hand turn around the corner and continue down the busy street, which has a nice big bike lane, to my house. There was a car waiting at the stop sign as I was riding toward it, and I thought the car was waiting to turn right, even though it had no turn signal on, because it's impossible to go straight or make a left turn there with all that traffic. So, not wanting to end up on the right side of a right-turning car and risk getting hit, I slowed down to see if it would either make its turn before I got to the intersection or if it would still be waiting, in which case I would cut the corner through the gas station and directly into the bike lane. The car was evidently turning left or going straight because, as I slowed down, it started to pull straight out into the intersection. So I figured I'd be clear to ride right around the corner behind it and into the nice big bike lane. I looked down at my bike at this point, for no particular reason, as I was riding up to the stop sign to check that my turn was safe.

When I looked up a split second later, it was to see the car that had just pulled into the intersection ahead of me getting t-boned by a Corvette coming down the busy street at top speed. With the power of the crash and the geometry involved, here are a few of the things that happened very quickly: one, the Corvette pushed the other car across the intersection right in front of me, as far as the bike lane I was about to enter; and two, both cars then spun at different trajectories across traffic. All told, each car traveled probably 150 feet before stopping. The crash was bad enough that, of the things I later observed, at least one door got torn clear off the Corvette, the gas tank was torn open and leaking all over the place, and the Corvette somehow got most of the front end of the other car stuck to it.

All the people involved in the crash are alive and okay, and I was completely unharmed and uninvolved because the crash didn't get closer than 10 or 20 feet from me at the closest point. On the surface of it, this accident had nothing to do with bikes, or drivers not paying attention to cyclists, or cyclists not paying attention to cars. But here's what scared the shit out of me:

- If I had decided to pull up next to the car at the stop sign to make my right turn, rather than hanging back to see what it was going to do, I would have been about five feet from the accident and directly in its path. Both cars would have hit me immediately.

- If I had been entering the bike lane on the busy street, rather than hanging back, I would have been riding right through one of the areas that the two cars spun through after the impact happened.

- Even though I was a few feet back from the intersection, if the geometry of the impact and subsequent car trajectories had been even slightly different, I was close enough that either or both of the cars could have hit me right where I was as they spun out. If the Corvette had hit the other car on the rear rather than the front, it could very well have been deflected toward me, not away from me, and hit me at a very high rate of speed.

I don't know what your chances would be as a bicyclist getting clipped by an accident that you weren't initially part of but which sends 6 or 7 thousand pounds of out-of-control cars barreling into you, but I'm going to guess that if you're not wearing a helmet they're basically zero. Even though I didn't end up in the accident, the knowledge that I was wearing my helmet made me very, very glad, because it was just about the only thing I could have done to prepare for the contingency of someone else's accident ending up right on top of me.

And so, boys and girls, Katie has just had a point driven home about something that's probably perfectly obvious, but here it is: Safety equipment isn't really there for the times when everything is working normally and you're smart and in control of the situation. It's also not just there for the times when you do something dumb or unforseen, like hitting a rock and flipping your bike. It's also there for when other people do things that weren't even on your radar and didn't start off involving you at all, but might suddenly involve you very quickly and catastrophically.

Hooray for helmet. Also, I don't like cars.

Okay, I'm done being Dianna now; I'll go back to writing about food. Oh wait.

Posted by katie at November 18, 2007 06:14 PM

Dude: I am so, so, SO glad you did not get squashed by a large randomly-ricocheting vehicle. So glad. Good job you.

Re the helmet:
because it was just about the only thing I could have done to prepare for the contingency of someone elseâs accident ending up right on top of me

Yes! Specifically, it is the simplest, cheapest, most convenient piece of safety gear you can wear all the time on your bike that might modify the outcome of this or any other completely freakish traffic situation. It is a $25 investment that decreases the likelihood you will wind up with last name redacted in an Oliver Sacks book, and I, being currently in the middle of re-reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, am prepared to call that a pretty fucking good deal. Seriously, a working brain is kind of an important amazing thing.

Posted by: Dianna at November 18, 2007 11:21 PM

You know what doesn't work? The blockquote HTML tag, which was supposed to make my above quoting look nice. Could you, I don't know, stick some italics on it or something?

Posted by: Dianna at November 18, 2007 11:25 PM

You know one of the things that I subsequently discovered during the Accident Scene Waiting For The Cops After-Party? Even though I was mere feet from the accident when it happened, no one -- no one involved, no one across the street, no one at the gas station, no one driving, no one walking on the sidewalk, no one -- had noticed or registered the presence or existence of an enbicycled person anywhere near the accident. You're really invisible on a bike, even with lights, and possibly even with bells and whistles. One of the best safety things someone's told me is to ride like you're actually invisible all the time, like no one will ever see you or know you're there, and I think it's true.

Also, I was telling one of my friends -- one of my only helmet-wearing friends -- about this earlier tonight, and he totally shivered. "You know when I started wearing a helmet?" he said. "It was this summer when that guy got killed in the right lane on Mission Street, and I realized I was probably due."

Partly for this reason, I'm officially coming out against the Retarded Left Turn policy, which, at least as we were executing it with 2 bikes on my last visit, left one bike unpredictably sitting at a weird angle in the right traffic lane with cars behind, either fuming or preparing to drive right through the bike. It was making me nervous then and it makes me more nervous to think about now. Instead I advocate a Waiting Until The Appropriate Time To Get In Left Turn Lane policy, or a Nana-Style Three Rights Make A Left Policy, or a modified A Right And A Left And A Left On Small Streets Make A Left policy, or a Get On The Sidewalk Out Of Traffic policy, or a Last Resort Walk The Bike policy. What's your take?

Posted by: katie at November 19, 2007 02:40 AM

Also: Thank you. Me too.

Also: Here are your italics. I live to serve.

Posted by: katie at November 19, 2007 02:43 AM

But how come cyclists just wear those little cardboardy kind of helmets that only cover the top of the skull? I'm not saying a big motorcycle helmet with a pull-down visor is in order, but maybe at least a helmet with some side panels to protect more of the head. Is that just the part you always land on when you fall off a bike or what?

Posted by: didofoot at November 19, 2007 09:40 AM

1. Cardboardy: they are supposed to squish and smash and thereby absorb the shock of an impact instead of transferring it to your brain!
2. Top of the head: I really have no idea. Maybe your shoulders get in the way of hitting the side of your head with much force? I should do some tests. Also I'm a fan of those skateboardy helmets that go all the way around your head, although I understand them to be not that squishy.

Posted by: Dianna at November 19, 2007 01:22 PM

Katie, I just don't know about the Retarded Left Turn policy. I mean, I do -- obviously it is retarded -- but I am tempted to argue that it works much better with one bike and only becomes truly retarded when attempted by two bikes in serial configuration. Then again, I've become a fan of the Take A Right And Go Down To A Smaller Street Where You Can Turn Left Without Traffic Behind You policy also. Or the Fuck It Gimme My Lane policy. They all have their shining moments.

Speaking of shining, there was a competition last week to make the Best-Lit Bike. I was really excited to see people riding around covered in Xmas lights, but wound up not going because, basically, I ran out of gas.

Posted by: Dianna at November 19, 2007 01:29 PM